Rise of Tibetan soft power

Tibetan ‘soft power’ has ensured that we are going to see a continued rise in Tibetan nationalistic aspirations along with the flourishing of Tibetan culture and civilization, in tandem with the rise of China as a global power
Tsering Namgyal
5 January 2011

Many Tibetans these days are rightfully feeling dismayed, believing that their culture and identity is increasingly being eclipsed and their hopes for a resolution to the Tibetan question dashed by the rise of China.

But hold on a minute. Though China is already on the path to being an undisputed economic and military power, Tibet has also become a superpower in its own right. 

Tibet has become an international ‘soft power.’ 

The idea of ‘Tibet’ has enormous import in the minds of the international public: people all over the world are recognizing that Tibetan civilization needs to be preserved, supported and protected.

The idea of ‘soft-power’, coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye, is the ability of nations to use moral and cultural capital to persuade and inspire others.

All governments engage in exercises in soft power. Obvious instruments of this process include Alliances Francaise of France, the Fulbright Scholarship of the United States, the Goethe Institute of Germany, the British Council in the UK. The Beijing Olympics itself was a showcase for China’s own attempts at soft power.

Many of these exercises amount to propaganda, though there are more subtle and more effective forms of soft power. In the case of India, the philosophy of non-violence, democracy – Yoga and Ayurveda – are sometimes more convincing than the Incredible India campaigns.

Cultural power is not necessarily linked to economic supremacy, as is evident in the case of current Japan. Even though the Japanese economy has been in the doldrums for decades and its economic prowess is nowhere near the peak of the 1980s, Japan continues to remain a major cultural power. As any youth these days would testify, the whiff of Japanese cool is hard to ignore, be it in fashion, food or, high-tech.  

Good news is that something similar is happening to Tibet, thanks of course to the leadership of the Dalai Lama. On the one hand, Tibetans are fighting against being assimilated into China. But on the other hand, a whirlwind of Tibetan cool has been spreading around the world for the past few decades. Exhibitions, teachings and seminars about Tibet have been held in places as farflung as Toronto, convincing even the most hardened cynic that Tibetan culture – rather than being lost as a result of the Chinese oppression – is in fact thriving in spite of the displacement.

Monks these days are seen not only strolling the night markets of Taipei but also creating Sand Mandalas in Paris. Tibetan poems are propagated not only on the Internet but also recited in the salons of New York and London. Tibetan history is also in vogue amongst scholars, however ignored by the national powers. In the summer of 2010, nearly a thousand Tibetan scholars gathered at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to discuss everything about Tibetan civilization, from the history of Tibetan banditry to the tales of Tibetan ogresses. Not your average Buddhist retreat.

Major trade surplus in spirituality

Departments and institutes have been created in major universities aimed mainly at researching the Tibetan science of mind and Buddhist psychology - as if these systems of knowledge, refrigerated and code-protected in the cold mountains of Tibet for centuries, were finally released to heal the despondent souls of the post-9/11 world. Frequent listeners to the Dalai Lama’s teachings would know how often he mentions the fact that Tibetan scholars have preserved for centuries these texts which have all but disappeared from India.

This traditional education not only continues, but efforts are also made to modernize the system.  Leading Western institutions, such as Atlanta’s Emory University, are joining with monastic communities to teach science to young monks. Indeed, these days, thousands of monks pursuing their studies in hundreds of odd monasteries in India – technology parks of Buddhist psychology – have become the premier manufacturers of mental peace.

In less formal ways, dharma centres and retreat institutes have been flourishing in North America and Europe, resulting in norms of spiritual practice and rituals that even strike Tibetans as quite strange. This spiritual exchange has resulted in a whole new vocabulary, injecting phrases like ‘compassionate warrior’, ‘spiritual materialism’ and ‘mindfulness’ into our daily conversations.

Indeed, Tibetan Buddhism has begun to speak back to us in American-English. If meditation were denominated in real currencies, the Tibetan diaspora would easily run a major trade surplus with Europe and the United States.

It is no secret these days how popular Tibetan religion and spirituality has become amongst the Chinese public, helping compensate for the loss of Tibetan culture caused by its government’s policies. Those who think that this is all some new age mumbo-jumbo might want to check out the back issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), arguably the leading science journal in the country, which has published empirical findings of the experiments carried out with Tibetan monks at several top American universities.

Books based on these studies have become national bestsellers.The deregulation of the spiritual markets in the past twenty years has indeed fuelled no resentment in the meditative markets of the West. That is because the world has outsourced to Tibetan masters the work of achieving mental peace and meditative technology for which there is no easy substitute.

In the high-end market of practical neuroscience, Tibetan Buddhists have faced little competition. As the new media economy has led to the unlocking of the value chain across all industries, the Tibetan Buddhist communities have become a ‘gold standard’ against which all spiritual organizations are compared.

The extent to which Tibetan culture has travelled around the world can be seen in the strangest of the places. On December 17, the New York Times picture about a memorial for recently deceased US diplomat Richard Holbrooke showed a Tibetan Buddhist thangka serving as a poignant backdrop to the image of former US President Bill Clinton comforting the widow of Mr. Holbrooke.

The fact that recent teachings by the 17th Karmapa in Bodhgaya were translated live into half a dozen languages and telecast over the Internet underscores the extent to which Tibetan Buddhism has become globalized and hybridized. During July 2011, the Dalai Lama will also bestow Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) teachings, highly sought after by Buddhists, not in the state of Bihar but in Washington DC.

Potent sites of resistance

These events no doubt help expand the Tibetan spheres of influence and assert Tibetan identity. Yet a less nuanced understanding might lead to a failure to fully grasp the ways in which this performance of Tibetan religiosity, while not so overtly political in content, also creates potent sites of resistance. To say that faith is a marker of identity risks tautology. It is not without reason that religion bears the brunt of Chinese policies inside Tibet.

In a much circulated and a highly-innovative “I am Tibetan” video released by Tibetans inside Tibet last year, many participants point to “Buddhism” as the reason why they think they are Tibetan. Thus denying that spirituality has a role to play in resistance is as simplistic as saying that hip-hop music concerts have no role in social movements or that the Olympics cannot be appropriated as tools of nationalism.

These are all external manifestations of culture. In the end, however, Tibetan ‘soft power’ – for lack of a better phrase – survives beyond culture and religion, or for that matter, spirituality.

On the contrary, defining it in these terms flies in the very face of the idea of the word ‘Tibet’, which, like the best of the Tibetan spiritual transmissions, is simply beyond words.

Therefore, there is indeed a need for an awakening of sorts and a recognition of what Tibetan ‘soft power’ and its allures have to offer a world disillusioned with ‘hard power.’

Still, we live in a real world where geopolitics is the name of the game and cultural capital can travel only so far. In the years ahead, we are going to see a continued rise in Tibetan nationalistic aspirations along with the flourishing of Tibetan culture and civilization, in tandem with the rise of China as a global power.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData